Bingeing on television has become a hallmark of the pandemic. My own obsession has been the Netflix drama “Borgen,” produced by Danish public television and originally broadcast from 2010 to 2013. It’s fiction that credibly imagines Denmark’s first female prime minister. In fact, after the second of its three seasons aired, Helle Thorning-Schmidt became Denmark’s actual first female prime minister, and many think the series had something to do with it.
In the story, Birgitte Nyborg, an idealistic leader of a small centrist party, is elevated to the premier’s seat due to a series of fortuitous electoral circumstances that forces her to adjust her ideals to parliamentary reality. The show follows certain dramatic conventions, mainly in the conflicts that arise when Nyborg tries to accommodate her private life with her public obligations, but the windmills she tilts at in her political quest are structural and, in that sense, sexist. The female characters have flaws they try to overcome, but the men, even those nominally representing liberal views, are irredeemable for the most part. It’s not that Nyborg’s male peers resent a woman seeking the level of power they’ve always enjoyed, but that they take their privilege for granted. Recently, female world leaders have drawn attention for being more effective than their male counterparts at addressing the coronavirus, but it may have less to do with their gender than with the nature of politics that has developed over the centuries under the sole superintendence of men. Nyborg is successful because she defies an element of the status quo that seems inviolable.
This recognition of entrenched political power is the theme of two new Japanese documentaries. The first, Arata Oshima’s “Why You Can’t Be Prime Minister,” has been continually selling out screenings at the Tokyo theater where it opened in June. The movie profiles Junya Ogawa, an opposition Diet member from Kagawa Prefecture who is a walking cliche of political idealism. He sacrifices creature comforts for himself and his family in the pursuit of constructive engagement, switches parties when the inevitable disillusionment sets in and delivers fiery speeches in the Lower House that only political nerds pay attention to.
It’s difficult to determine if the movie’s title is meant to be cynical or despairing. Oshima is the son of Japan’s most contentious major filmmaker, Nagisa Oshima, whose artistic sensibility was dedicated to generating discomfort. However, Arata Oshima doesn’t seem to have an agenda. He met Ogawa through his wife and started following him around 2003.
Ogawa’s frustration is that the opposition in Japan sees its mission as tearing down the ruling party rather than formulating policies that will appeal to voters by improving their lives. This is an old gripe, but Oshima’s film gives it a relatable context. At one point, Ogawa tells a veteran journalist, who likes the lawmaker but is known to be a confidante of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, that Abe’s public support is mainly based on the failure of the Democratic Party of Japan when it held power from 2009 to 2012. Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party uses this failure to boost its brand.
Ogawa’s policy concerns are poverty and sustainability, and he changes parties several times during the years chronicled in the film, sometimes out of political expediency, sometimes out of personal conviction, but such changes seem suspicious to others, since loyalty to one’s party rather than to one’s beliefs is considered a sign of integrity. In the third season of “Borgen,” Birgitte Nyborg is roundly castigated for abandoning the party that made her.
Ogawa’s quixotic career comes across as a sincere but insufficient challenge to traditional entrenched interests, which value power over public service. Another new documentary, “Haribote,” addresses entrenched interests so directly that the movie inevitably gets sucked into the black hole of cynicism it seeks to expose.
The movie, produced by Tulip-TV Inc., an independent broadcaster based in the city of Toyama, looks at the 2016 money scandal within the city assembly. Tulip-TV broke the story and embarrassed many long-time local politicians in the process.
In the documentary, the leader of the assembly’s LDP majority proposes to raise the monthly salary of assembly members by ¥100,000, saying he can’t live off the national pension he would receive after he retires. Tulip-TV investigates financial records to get a better sense of the matter. Each assembly member is entitled to an expense budget of up to ¥150,000 a month, and a significant number of politicians regularly use the maximum amount available. However, the reporters find that many receipts are doctored or forged.
Fourteen assembly members, and not just those belonging to the LDP, resign as a result, but 10 members who eventually returned the money they admitted to using improperly were returned to their seats by voters. As one voter puts it, they will learn from their mistakes and thus be better lawmakers.
Anyone watching will conclude the opposite. The miscreants prostrate themselves in front of constituents, but their overall attitude is that of men (all are men) who assume their positions are secure.
Later, more wrongdoing is uncovered and four politicians are indicted, but for all their hard work in exposing the embezzlement, Tulip-TV fails to change the prevailing culture that made it possible in the first place. The politicians treat the young journalists as minor irritations. One of the two main reporters quits the station and the other transfers out of the news department.
These two reporters, who are also credited as the film’s directors, told Tokyo Shimbun that “Haribote” is meant to be a comedy, but one they hope will make viewers angry. The title means someone who puts up a formidable front but has nothing of substance behind it, and in the movie the term refers to both politicians and the media, which often does the necessary work of journalism but rarely produces results that make a difference. If you desire true satisfaction from your political dramas, stick to fiction.
“Why You Can’t Be Prime Minister” is currently screening at Pole-Pole Higashi Nakano in Tokyo and theaters nationwide. “Haribote” is currently screening at Eurospace in Tokyo.
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